Friday, April 20, 2007

Divine Mercy in Vilnius

As you may have read in my last post, I am in Vilnius, Lithuania this week for the Spring meeting of the English Speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor. I serve as Executive Secretary of this group. This afternoon we had the most remarkable experience. We went to meet with Valdas Adamkus, the President of the Republic of Lithuania. A genuinely good man who cares a great deal for his people and who has a great love for Jesus and the Franciscans. It was an honor to meet with him today. But, that is not the remarkable experience that I mention.
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As we left the Presidential Palace, Fr. Astijus, the Lithuanian Provincial Minister, said, "Let us go to the Chapel of Divine Mercy. Did you know that the original picture of Divine Mercy is here in Vilnius?" To say the least, I did not. What a wonderful, surprising treat in our afternoon. This image is the only one that was painted under the direction of St. Faustina and it is stunning. When we went into the chapel there was Eucharistic adoration taking place and so we were fortunate enough to spend a few moments in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and this blessed image of Divine Mercy.
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Here is a bit of the history of this image: Today there are many variations of the Divine Mercy Image around the world, the most famous being the Hyla, Vilnius, and Skemp Images. The Vilnius Image, featured here, is the original image painted under Sister Faustina's direction by Vilnius artist Eugene Kazimirowski in 1934. This Image is named after the town where the Image was painted and first hung for public display. Both the Hyla and the Skemp are named after the artists who painted them.
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According to Sister Faustina’s diaries, on the evening of February 22, 1931, while she prayed alone in her cell, Jesus appeared to her as the King of Mercy. He stood dressed in an ankle-length white garment with one hand raised in blessing. The other hand was touching his breast, from which flowed forth two rays: one red, the other pale.
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In silence the nun gazed intently at the Lord, overwhelmed with awe but also full of great joy. “Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You,” he told her. “I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then) throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I Myself will defend it as My own glory” (Diary, 47-48).
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During the same visit Jesus requested that a Feast of Mercy be celebrated in the entire Church as another sign of his unlimited love.“I want this image, which you will paint with a brush, to be solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter; that Sunday is to be the Feast of Mercy” (Diary, 49), Sister Faustina said Jesus told her “On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon souls who approach the fount of My mercy The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment....Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet” (Diary, 699).
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Because Faustina was not an artist, her spiritual director Father Sopocko took her to a local Vilnius artist named Eugene Kazimirowski, who painted this Image directly under Faustina’s supervision. Sadly remarking, “Lord, who will paint You as beautiful as you are” (Diary 313), Faustina had the artist change the face at least 10 times. Finally, Our Lord told Faustina that it was good enough - to leave it in the state it’s in. When she told Our Lord of her disappointment, he comforted her by saying: “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace” (Diary, 313).
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At Father Sopocko’s urging Sister Faustina asked Jesus about the meaning of the two rays. The pale ray, Jesus answered, represents “the Water, which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. ...These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when My agonized heart was opened by a lance on the cross” (Diary, 299).
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The painting’s first home was the corridor of a convent near Father Sopocko’s parish rectory. But Jesus had other plans for its placement, and requested the image be moved to the church. “By means of this Image I shall be granting many graces to souls; so let every soul have access to it” (Diary, 570), he told Sister Faustina.
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News of the painting spread. In 1935, as part of the celebration of the Jubilee Year of the Redemption of the World, thousands of people venerated the image when it was publicly displayed at the Eastern Gate to Vilnius, Poland, on the Feast of Mercy. (Vilnius is now located in Lithuania. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, Lithuania was granted its independence, with Vilnius as its capital.) Two years later the painting was blessed and hung in St. Michael’s Church in Vilnius. The painting currently hangs in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius.
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Just recently it was accidentally discovered at a prayer group in Arizona, that the face on this Image perfectly matched the one on the Holy Shroud of Turin. This restored Vilnius Image is the only Image painted under St. Faustina’s direction.
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Personally, I have to say, I like this image better than the more popular Hyla image. It has a realism that seems to jump right off of the canvas. I can't explain in words, but I was truly moved praying in its presence.
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Jesus, I trust in You!

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